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History of Love I: Myths of Love


One of my favorite Greek myths is that of Eros and Psyche. Eros was a god, the son of Aphrodite. He is a handsome young man, not the infantilized version of the Roman Cupid we all know. Psyche is mortal, but so beautiful that she makes Aphrodite, after all the goddess of love and beauty, jealous. So she sends her son to make Psyche fall in love with a hideous creature. Instead he nicks himself with one of his arrows, and falls in love with Psyche himself. He has the gentle Zephyr take her to an amazing palace, with awe-inspiring views, amazing food, and a wealth of treasures. At night Eros comes to Psyche and makes wonderful, passionate love with her. He is after all, the very personification of desire. The deal is, of course, that she cannot look upon his face, given his godliness. While Psyche is totally happy with Eros, she says that she is lonely during the day and wants her sisters to visit, to reassure her parents of her happiness. Eros is more than happy to make the arrangements, though he himself will be absent.

But her sisters convince her that the reason her husband doesn’t want her to see him is that he is actually hideous, and that she needs to betray his only trust, and gaze upon him. When she finally can’t bury the doubt planted by her sisters, she lights a lamp after one of their amazing lovemaking sessions and finds the young god even more beautiful than she ever imagined. But in her awestruck surprise, she spills some of the lamp’s hot oil on him, and he, being betrayed by her, abandons her, aggrieved. But her mother-in-law, Aphrodite, guarantees that she can win him back, after completing some tasks for Aphrodite. So Psyche commits herself, her passion for Eros magnified by her loss, and her misfortune. The tasks Aphrodite assigns her are nigh impossible, but Nature graciously intervenes. Ants help her sort millions of tiny seeds, and an eagle helps her retrieve the black waters of a waterfall otherwise impossible to reach. Finally, Aphrodite has her get a makeup compact from Persephone, wife of Hades, Queen of the Underworld, knowing that no one that goes there can ever return. But the gods intervene, the petulant Eros forgives her for betraying his inevitably violated condition, and she drinks the ambrosia that makes her immortal. She even gets Eros to forgive her mother-in-law, as, now removed from the mortal coil, Psyche will no longer distract humanity from Aphrodite’s beauty. Psyche is the personification of the human soul, purified by passion and misfortune. Personally, I find the Hollywood ending a bit disappointing, and prefer stories like that of Ulysses, who abjures immortality for mortal love. But Eros can’t come down from Olympus. Love is an ideal.

Human history, and the mythologies that have helped power it are, of course, the play within the play of biological evolution. In some ways, history supercedes evolution, as one of the evolutionary developments of human biology is the emergence of an extended childhood. Within this extended development, our massive and socially interdependent brains internalize the history and culture out of which our cognitive and emotional capacities are constructed. I am not the only one who believes that storytelling itself is such a development (On the Origin of Stories), but such learned skills, from repeating a list of things to be remembered, through written language, to computing differential equations, are the real hallmarks of human achievement. No surprise that learned emotional scripts are behind the formation and sustenance of the love relationships which sustain us, and within which we reproduce.

It is a sad and odd truth that the Western tradition, particularly the pedestrian Anglo-American one with which I am most familiar, over-uses the word “love” to refer to phenomena that are perhaps better differentiated. Love is an intentional state, like many psychological states, referring to things outside of itself, but can refer to parents, children, lovers, fast cars, rock and roll, or a good beer. The Greeks had at least a half dozen words, distinguishing between the eros of erotic love, the philia of deep friendship, one variety of which is storge, the love between parents and children, the agape of unconditional “God” love, the ludus of playful love, pragma of longstanding love, and even reserving a term philautia, for self-love. Agape is the unconditional “God” love that the apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, which almost invariably gets trotted out at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” This is the passage that ends with “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” The Greek agape becomes the Latin caritas. Those with a Catholic education may know that the Latin fides, spes, et caritas is often translated as “faith, hope, and charity.”

The play within the play of biological evolution, history has a time course of millions of years rather than mere millennia. There are three different biological systems which vary in how they get combined across historical and cultural variations in the understanding of human affection: attachment, caregiving, and sex. Att